Sometimes the lines between fantasy and “proper” literature blur like the boundary between wakefulness and dream. Dan Chaon’s excellent collection of surreal stories Stay Awake explores this liminal territory to great – and occasionally disturbing – effect. The stories explore a nighttime world of shifting realities; a place where the lost souls of the living and the dead cross paths with uneasy familiarity. Many of Chaon’s tales focus on disintegration, guilt, fear and shame. Some of the stories might touch you in ways unexpected.
I ran across this passage in his story ‘The Bees’:
Gene ’s son Frankie wakes up screaming. It has become frequent, two or three times a week, at random times: midnight—three a.m.—five in the morning. Here is a high, empty wail that severs Gene from his unconsciousness like sharp teeth. It is the worst sound that Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently—falling from a building, or caught in some machinery that is tearing an arm off, or being mauled by a predatory animal. No matter how many times he hears it he jolts up with such images playing in his mind, and he always runs, thumping into the child ’s bedroom to find Frankie sitting up in bed, his eyes closed, his mouth open in an oval like a Christmas caroler. If someone took a picture of him, he would appear to be in a kind of peaceful trance, as if he were waiting to receive a spoonful of ice cream, rather than emitting that horrific sound.
“Frankie!” Gene will shout, and claps his hands hard in the child ’s face. The clapping works well. At this, the scream always stops abruptly, and Frankie opens his eyes, blinking at Gene with vague awareness before settling back down into his pillow, nuzzling a little before growing still. He is sound asleep, he is always sound asleep, though even after months Gene can’t help leaning down and pressing his ear to the child ’s chest, to make sure he ’s still breathing, his heart is still going. It always is.
There is no explanation that they can find. In the morning, Frankie doesn’t remember anything, and on the few occasions that they have managed to wake him in the midst of one of his screaming attacks, he is merely sleepy and irritable. Once, Gene ’s wife, Karen, shook him and shook him, until finally he opened his eyes groggily. “Honey?” she said. “Honey? Did you have a bad dream?” But Frankie only moaned a little. “No,” he said, puzzled and unhappy at being awakened, but nothing more.
I recognized it immediately: Frankie is having night terrors.
A night terror is a kind of sleep disorder that is superficially similar to the nightmares most of us occasionally experience, but is far more traumatic and potentially very dangerous. A person experiencing a night terror will scream, thrash and shout. They’ll sometimes even jump out of bed and run. Occasionally, they’ll hurt themselves or other people because they incorporate them into the experience. Even if someone experiencing a night terror seems awake, they’re actually not. They’ll respond to you (or not), but will still be experiencing the night terror and may argue or shout in fear. Then, just as suddenly as it came on, the night terror is over. The person returns to sleep and will probably not remember anything about the incident in the morning.
How do I know this? Easy: I have night terrors. This isn’t easy for me to share: It’s extremely embarrassing and just talking about them makes me worry that I’ll have one tonight. However, maybe by me sharing my story it will help someone else.
Less than five percent of children will experiences a night terror in their life. It’s very rare. Adults practically never do: Researchers estimate the percentage of adult night terror sufferers to be less than one percent. Oddly, I never had them as a kid. Mine started in my late teens. I know, I’m special. Lucky, lucky me.
You might be curious about what it’s like to have a night terror. Most people are. It’s okay. I’ll tell you.
Imagine, if you would, opening your eyes just a little bit in the dead of night and seeing the worst thing possible perched over your face. I mean, it’s real as life, and it’s right there: It is going to get you. Most night terror sufferers – the ones who can remember their “dream” – report snakes, spiders and, more rarely, predators or monsters of some sort. I’m one of those. My night terrors almost always involve snakes. What’s weird is that the “snake” isn’t always on me, near me or even threatening me in some way. I’ll “see” a snake – not even a venomous one, usually a non-descript king snake or something like that – crawling up my wall. Rarely, my night terror will involve a spider. When that happens, I “see” a skinny, chitinous spider descending on a line of web toward my body. (Incidentally, I’m not particularly frightened by snakes or spiders during my waking hours.)
In either case, “seeing” the thing and reacting to it occurs at the same time: I start screaming as loud as I can. I scream myself hoarse. I jump and flail and strike out. I’ve jumped out of bed and slammed into a wall or tripped and fell to the ground, all while I’m still asleep. I’m in the dream (which isn’t really a dream, it’s more like a half-conscious hallucination), yet I’m not. My heart races so fast that I think I might die. It beats in my chest like a drum. I hyperventilate and shake and sweat buckets. If you talk to me, I’ll just incorporate you into what I’m experiencing. At best, I’ll argue with you that there is indeed a snake or spider, or maybe ignore you. At worst, I might think that you’re a threat of some sort, which means I’ll struggle and possibly accidentally hurt you if you try to restrain me. (Here’s a video of a guy – NOT ME – having a night terror.)
Thankfully, I’ve never hurt anyone but myself: I’ve nearly broken my nose. I’ve punched walls hard enough to leave bruises on my fingers. The worst injuries I’ve had, though, have been to my dignity. Neighbors have complained before, and I’ve even had the cops show up at my house in the middle of the night thinking that someone was being murdered. It’s embarrassing. I feel incredibly guilty when I wake people up or scare them, and I hate myself for not being able to control these episodes.
I don’t like to fall asleep in strange places. I don’t like to travel alone. I fear having an episode. I fear embarrassment. Some people may think that I travel with my wife everywhere because I’m scared to go somewhere by myself, or I’m in some way codependent. Well, in a way I am: My wife knows what to do if I have an episode. She speaks reassuringly with me. She calls my name and tells me I’m having a nightmare. She doesn’t get upset if I scream or yell or argue, and generally just tries to keep me safe. Eventually, the episode ends, and then she keeps me away long enough for it to get out of my system. Sometimes I can go back to sleep, sometimes I can’t. Occasionally, I’ll go back to sleep only to have another night terror an hour later. Sometimes I don’t even remember any of this when I get up in the morning.
Together, my wife and I have learned a few tricks to minimize the number of episodes I experience. I’ll share them with you:
- Keep the bedroom extremely cool. I don’t know why, but being hot equals instant night terror for me. This, more than anything else, is likely to provoke an episode.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule, and try to get eight hours of sleep a night. I don’t know why, but if I start getting less sleep a night, the chances of having a night terror go up for me.
- Don’t drink alcohol before going to bed.
- Don’t eat a big meal and go to bed. Same goes for spicy food.
- Keep your room completely dark. Night lights, blinking power buttons, digital alarm clocks, televisions, all of these things raise the chance that I’ll have an episode.
- Keep your sleeping area clean and neat. Don’t have anything in the room that could be incorporated into the night terror as some kind of threat.
- Never try to go immediately to sleep. Have a wind-down period. Relax first. I watch Adult Swim and read books before I turn the light out. Watching “Family Guy” and “American Dad” is part of my nightly ritual that helps me relax and tells my body that the work day is over and it’s time to take it easy.
- Try not to go to bed anxious, angry or sad. I know, it’s harder than it sounds.
I also recommend seeing a doctor. I’ve had great success with anti-anxiety medication. That’s pretty much the gold standard for night terror treatment at this point. (A note: there are no credible studies linking night terrors to mental illness, so don’t worry that you’re going “nuts”.) Between all of the tips I’ve compiled and medication, I’ve gotten my night terrors down only a handful of times a year. I have hope that they’ll eventually go away completely.
Meeting other people who have experienced night terrors has also helped me. I used to think that I was the only adult in the world who had them until I heard comedian Mike Birbiglia talking about his own episodes on the radio program “This American Life.” He’s on the road a lot, and the poor guy actually jumped through a plate glass window once in a hotel room he was staying in. He ended up in the emergency room, but at least got a pretty funny story out of it. I guess it’s all about keeping it in perspective. Maybe my own story isn’t as funny, but I’m trying my best with the perspective part.